Uploaded to the Life network

A fantastic short film about what you might see when your mind is uploaded to an online storage cloud in 2052. It’s subtitled “the Singularity, ruined by lawyers”.

The piece is by futurist Tom Scott who obviously sees the consciousness uploading business far more pessimistically than me.

Personally, I’m going to get uploaded to a linux server. It’s be completely free but won’t support all my mental states.

Yes, I’ll be doing software jokes in the afterlife. No, you won’t have to humour me.

Link to fantastic video ‘Welcome to Life’ (via @SebastianSeung)

BBC Future column: why your brain loves to tune out

My column for BBC Future from last week. The original is here. Thanks to Martin Thirkettle for telling me about the demo that leads the column.

Our brains are programmed to cancel out all manner of constants in our everyday lives. If you don’t believe it, try a simple, but startling experiment.

The constant whir of a fan. The sensation of the clothes against your skin. The chair pressing against your legs. Chances are that you were not acutely aware of these until I pointed them out. The reason you had somehow forgotten about their existence? A fundamental brain process that we call adaptation.
Our brains are remarkably good at cancelling out all sorts of constants in our everyday lives. The brain is interested in changes that it needs to react or respond to, and so brain cells are charged with looking for any of these differences, no matter how minute. This makes it a waste of time registering things that are not changing, like the sensation of clothes or a chair against your body, so the brain uses adaptation to tune this background out, allowing you to focus on what is new.

If you don’t believe me, try this simple, but startling demonstration. First, hold your eyeball perfectly still. You could use calipers to do this, or a drug that paralyses the eye muscles, but my favourite method is to use my thumb and index finger. Using the sides of your thumb and finger, press on the bone of the eye socket, through your upper and lower eyelids. Do this gently. Try it with one eye first, closing the other eye or covering it with your hand.

With your eye fixed in position, keep your head still and soon you will experience the strangest thing. (You will have to stop reading at this point. I don’t mind. We will pick up when you have finished). After a few seconds the world in front of you will fade away. As long as you are holding your eyeball perfectly still, you will very quickly discover that you can see nothing at all. Blink, or move your head, let go of your eye and the world will come back. What’s going on?!

Now you see it…

For all of our senses, when a certain input is constant we gradually get used to it. As you are holding your eye still, exactly the same pattern of light is falling on each brain cell that makes up the receptors in the back of your eye. Adaptation cancels out this constant stimulation, fading out the visual world. The receptors in your eye are still processing information. They have not gone to sleep. They simply stop firing as much, reducing the messages they pass on about incoming sensations – in effect the message passed on to the rest of the brain is “nothing new… nothing new… nothing new…”. You can make your brain cells spring into action by moving your eye, or by waving your hand in front of your face. Your hand, or anything moving in the visual world, is enough of a change to counteract the adaptation.
This sounds like it could go badly wrong. What if I am watching something, or someone, I am thinking hard about it, and I forget to move my eyes for a few seconds. Will adaptation mean that thing disappears? Well, yes, it could in principle. But the reason it does not happen in practice is due to an ingenious work-around that the evolution has built into the design of the eyes – they constantly jiggle in their sockets. As well as the large rapid eye movements we make several times a second, there is also a constant, almost unnoticeable twitching of the eye muscles that means that your eyes are never absolutely still, even when you are fixing your gaze on one point. This prevents any fading out due to adaptation.


You can see this twitching when you look at a single point of light against a dark background (such as a single star in the sky, or a glowing cigarette end in a totally dark room). Without a frame of reference your brain will be unable to infer a stable position of the point of light. Every twitch of your eye muscles will seem like a movement of the point of light (a phenomenon called the autokinetic effect).

Adaptation is so useful for the brain’s processing of information that it has been kept by evolution, even in basic visual processing, and this extra muscle twitching has been added in to prevent too much adaptation causing problems for us. But the basic mechanism is still there, as my eye experiment revealed.

Once you understand adaptation, you discover that it is all around us. It is the reason people shout when they come out of nightclubs (they have got used to the constant high volume, so it does not seem as loud to them as it does to the people they wake up on the way home). It is why a smell that might have hit you as overpowering when you first enter a room can actually be ignored after you’ve got used to it. And it is related to the phenomenon of word alienation, whereby you repeat a word so often it loses its meaning. But most of the time it operates quietly, in the background, helping to filtering out the things that do not change, so that we can concentrate on the more important tasks of those that do.

A history of human sacrifice

A video on the history of human sacrifice is available from Science magazine as part of their special issue on human conflict.

Sadly, all the articles are locked behind a paywall but the video is free to view and has science writer Ann Gibbons discussing how the practice evolved through the ages and how archaeologists have been uncovering the evidence.

If you can’t stump up the cash for what looks like a genuinely fascinating issue there’s more discussion from the latest edition on the podcast where the science of racism and prejudice is explored.

Link to locked special issue.
Link to video.
Link to podcast

Psychology and the one-hit wonder

Don’t miss an important article in this week’s Nature about how psychologists are facing up to problems with unreplicated studies in the wake of several high profiles controversies.

Positive results in psychology can behave like rumours: easy to release but hard to dispel. They dominate most journals, which strive to present new, exciting research. Meanwhile, attempts to replicate those studies, especially when the findings are negative, go unpublished, languishing in personal file drawers or circulating in conversations around the water cooler…

One reason for the excess in positive results for psychology is an emphasis on “slightly freak-show-ish” results, says Chris Chambers, an experimental psychologist at Cardiff University, UK. “High-impact journals often regard psychology as a sort of parlour-trick area,” he says. Results need to be exciting, eye-catching, even implausible. Simmons says that the blame lies partly in the review process. “When we review papers, we’re often making authors prove that their findings are novel or interesting,” he says. “We’re not often making them prove that their findings are true.”

It’s perhaps worth noting that clinical psychology suffers somewhat less from this problem, as treatment studies tend to get replicated by competing groups and negative studies are valued just as highly.

However, it would be interesting to see whether the “freak-show-ish” performing pony studies are less likely to replicate than specialist and not very catchy cognitive science (dual-process theory of recognition, I’m looking at you).

As a great complement to the Nature article, this month’s The Psychologist has an extended look at the problem of replication [pdf] and talks to a whole range of people affected by the problem, from journalists to research experts.

But I honestly don’t know where this ‘conceptual replication’ thing came from – where you test the general conclusion of a study in another form – as this just seems to be a test of the theory with another study.

It’s like saying your kebab is a ‘conceptual replication’ of the pizza you made last night. Close, but no neopolitana.

Link to Nature article on psychology and replication.
pdf of Psychologist article ‘Replication, replication, replication’

She’s lost control

An article in Slate claims to have detectected a ‘logic hole’ in how much sympathy we feel for people with mental illness as both psychopathy and autism are ‘biological disorders’ that people ‘can’t help’ but we feel quite differently about people affected by them.

The ‘logic hole’, however, doesn’t exist because it is based on misunderstanding of the role of neuroscience in understanding behaviour and a caricature of what it means to have ‘no control’ over a condition.

Here’s what the article claims:

In the piece [recently published in The New York Times], Kahn compares psychopathy to autism, not because the two disorders are similar in their manifestation, but because psychologists believe they’re both neurological disorders, i.e. based in the brain and really something that the sufferer can’t help.

This caused me to note on Twitter that even though the conditions are similar in this way, autism garners sympathy and psychopathy doesn’t. In fact, most social discourse around psychopathy is still demonizing and utterly unsympathetic to the parents, who are often blamed for the condition. It struck me as an interesting logic hole in our cultural narrative around mental illness, since the usual assumption is that sympathy for mental illness is directly correlated with inability to control your problems.

Clearly the author has good intentions and aims to reduce the stigma associated with mental illness but in terms of behavioural problems, everything is a ‘biological disorder’ because all your behaviour originates in the brain.

The idea that because a disorder is ‘based in the brain’ it therefore follows that ‘really something that the sufferer can’t help’ is a complete fallacy.

Psychopathy, autism, depression, over-eating, persistently losing your keys and constantly getting annoyed at X Factor are all ‘based in the brain’ and this fact has nothing to do with how much control you have over the behaviour.

Putting this misunderstanding aside, however, there is also the unhelpful implication that someone ‘has’ or ‘has not’ control over their thoughts, behaviour, emotions and propensities, especially if they have a psychiatric diagnosis.

Conscious control varies between individuals, is affected by genetics, is amenable to change and training, and depends on the specific task, situation or action.

This does not mean that everyone with autism, psychopathy or any other diagnosis can just decide not to react in a certain way, but it would be equally stigmatising and simply wrong to assume that current difficulties are forever ‘fixed’.

The article finishes “I was just interested in the fact that there’s no relationship between how much we care about those with a mental disorder and how much those with it can help having it.”

In reality, sympathy for people with disorders is a complex phenomenon and the perception of ‘how much control the person has’ over the condition is only one of the factors. The (often equally bogus) moral associations also play a part as does the seriousness of the condition and the medical speciality that treats it.

Nevertheless, we need to get away from the idea that ‘biology means poor control’ because it is both a fallacy, and, ironically, known to be particularly stigmatising in itself.

Link to somewhat confused Slate article (via @ejwillingham)

A look inside digital humanity

BBC Radio 4 has just started an excellent series called The Digital Human that looks at how we use technology and how it affects our relationship to the social world.

It’s written and presented by psychologist Aleks Krotoski and the first two episodes are already online.

The first discusses the tendency to capture and display personal media through sites like Flickr and YouTube but, so far, the stand-out episode has been the second which discusses the presentation of self online and how much control we have over it.

I think it’s going to be a six-part series so there should be plenty more great stuff on the way.

Link to podcasts of Digital Human series.

Sex survey a let down in bed

A ‘saucy sex survey’ has been doing the rounds in the media that claims to be one of the largest studies on the sex lives of UK citizens. Unfortunately, it seems to be a bit of a let down in bed.

The study has been carried out by an unholy alliance between one of the country’s most respected relationship counselling charities, Relate, and the Ann Summers chain of sex shops but, sadly, it seems the commercial fluff has won out over the genuine insight.

I’m a big fan of Relate. They provide sex and relationship counselling regardless of status, sexuality or income and do an important and often thankless task.

In fact, my mum was a counsellor for them, years ago, when they were still called ‘Marriage Guidance’, and it was one of the things that got me interested in psychology.

The charity also runs a training and research institute for psychologists, psychotherapists and the like, and have built up a reputation for an evidence-based, down-to-earth approach.

Which makes it all the more surprising that they’d get involved with a survey that is clearly designed as a marketing gimmick rather than genuinely useful research.

How do I know it was a marketing gimmick? Because it was discussed in Marketing Week magazine as an example of Ann Summer’s ongoing ‘brand overhaul’ aimed at appealing to ‘a more mature audience’.

“Both parties”, says the article, “hope to make the dual branded survey an annual census”. Lovely.

Now, I’m not necessarily against commercial-academic double teaming, if you’ll excuse the turn of phrase, but you’d better produce something of quality if you want to keep your head held high.

But in this case, the whole thing looks dodgy. The full report, available online as a pdf, is just a bunch of good typesetting, poor graphics and lists of percentages.

What’s more worrying is that Relate won’t release their questions or how they went about asking them. Sex ninja Dr Petra Boynton [not quite her official title] has been trying to get hold of them, in part, because the way questions about a sensitive subject like sex are asked can greatly affect the answers you get.

And of course, which questions you ask is also key. A critical article in today’s Guardian raises some uncomfortable issues about the survey noting that “It sets up a model of the normal libido as frisky and adventurous, looking to try threesomes, bondage and toys – and those things are normal, but so too is not wanting to try them”.

Except, of course, if you’re a massive retailer with an interest in selling people ‘frisky and adventurous’ accessories.

Link to article ‘Ann Summers and Relate ought to be unlikely bedfellows’